I could list twenty, maybe thirty differences between high school graduations in Japan and those in America, although that list would be based upon my admittedly limited experience with both. In the weeks surrounding graduation here, though, I had quite a few curious teachers ask me about those differences.
Because cultural differences are interesting, aren’t they?
One thing about attire: female teachers, notably female homeroom teachers of the graduating class, sometimes dress in traditional kimono and hakama. I had the honor and the opportunity to wear it as well, which was quite exciting for me!
Sorry for the sidetracking. Back to the point of this write-up: my students and graduation itself.
So, what really struck me most? The formality of the ceremony here: the gloves, the tailcoats, the boutonnieres, and the pearls. The speeches made by town mayors and other honored guests. And I was particularly fascinated by the way my sometimes rather rowdy students have been trained to move in such a ceremony — jerky, mechanical movements; scripted steps; robotic arms; the deep bows of polite wind-up toys; impassive faces with small, proud smiles threatening to break through.
In contrast, I distinctly remember rainbow inflatable beach balls being tossed around during the valedictorian speech at my own high school graduation.
And what of my Japanese coworkers? What struck them the most, from the differences I relayed to them? Well, they already knew about our caps and gowns; they knew that our graduations took place on football fields in the balmy swelter of June as opposed to being held in freezing gymnasiums of March.
No, what struck them most is that the high school students who weren’t graduating — the freshman, sophomores, and juniors of the American schools — did not attend their senior’s graduation ceremony. Here in Japan — at least, at my base school — even the students who aren’t graduating that year must attend to wish their seniors’ goodbye. Which I thought was rather sweet, even though most of the younger students were probably bored to tears sitting through such a long, formal ceremony.
Enough of the differences, though. Sometimes I think we focus too much on the differences.
What about the similarities? The excitement and the nervous energy predating the ceremony. The smiles of just-graduated students, adrenaline rushing through their veins, freedom written on their faces.. The emotions — the joy, the tears. The proud parents. The flower bouquets, the photographs, signing of yearbooks. The shouts of “Congratulations!” (although the exact words sound a little different in Japanese). Wishing favorite teachers goodbye. Hugging friends. Proclaiming good riddance of high school. Reminiscing about all the good moments. Looking towards the future.
All of that was the same, in America and in Japan. And all of that is what matters.
I didn’t know my graduating students for all that long. They were only in my life—and I was only in theirs—for six short months. I really have no right to be proud of them, nor a claim to feelings of loss. Heck, I didn’t even know all their names. But even after all of that, it was still an emotional day for me.
One moment I will not forget: following the ceremony, following the photos and yearbook signings and goodbyes, I changed out of my kimono and hakama and returned to the staff room. One student — a boy I have occasionally worked with since August, a boy who is refreshingly unafraid to laugh at his own mistakes — found me there and announced that he was accepted to a nearby university. Loud and all smiles. He’ll be studying English there, he said, some thanks to my (honestly negligible) help. He declares he will become the best English teacher ever (AND he’ll find a girlfriend). And I laughed, and I shook my head and I did’t know what to say except “Good luck!” and “I’m so happy for you!” even though neither expressed how much joy I really felt in that moment.
Graduations—endings—really get to you.